Continuing this series of “what to do with your great Japanese knives” posts, I’d like to share a recipe that may freak you out. The taste is terrific… but it does involve fish heads.
The point isn’t just to post a recipe, of course, but to talk about knife methods. For this, you’re going to need a biggish deba-hōchō (180 or 210mm is a good size) or a very heavy chef’s knife. Otherwise, I don’t see how you’re going to pull it off.
We’re going to start with a whole roundfish, preferably some variety of tai, or sea bream. We’ll behead it, then turn the head into good food. The rest of the fish we’ll discuss another time.
If you haven’t sharpened up your deba in a while, do so now. For this, it’s got to be sharp.
Sharpening a Deba-Hōchō (出刃包丁)
When sharpening a deba, remember that it has to be both scarily sharp—otherwise you don’t get those beautiful, glass-smooth surfaces on your fillets—and extremely durable, so it’ll go through bones without developing micro-chips. Also remember that a deba-hōchō, in the traditional professional kitchen, is used for fine mincing, because an usuba used for mincing will tend to get caught in the board, leading again to micro-chips.
The main technique for sharpening a deba is the hamaguri or “clamshell” grind. The idea is to make the bevel of the knife curve gently, like a clamshell. This means that by the time you get to the very edge, the total included angle is rather large for a single-beveled knife, perhaps 25-30 degrees or so. Bear in mind that the total included angle on a double-beveled knife sharpened at 22 degrees is 44 degrees, so we’re still talking about a very narrow angle, but the structure of a single-beveled knife helps ensure its stability.
To achieve a hamaguri grind, follow the existing curvature. On your edge-dragging strokes, which do most of the work with any single-beveled knife, sharpen starting a tad higher than the actual edge. As the knife moves away from you, just think “pull back a little,” yet try not to do it. In my experience, this will make you pull back just that little teeny hair, and you’ll get a smooth curve from just behind the edge through the edge itself. Do not deburr strongly: single-beveled knives should be just barely stroked backwards, or you’ll grind out the backside (urasai).
If your deba is used for the full range of the traditional professional’s knife, you want to use a medium-coarse stone (~800 JIS) to back-bevel the heelmost third of it. In other words, lay the urasai of the heel on the stone, lift up about 10-15 degrees, and give it a few grinds. You’re not creating a strong bevel, just digging into the flat a bit. This gives the heel a total included angle on the order of 45 degrees, which is strong enough for mincing whatever needs to be minced. When you mince, hold the handle of the knife well back and smack the heel down. If you have a cheap board, you’ll get huge divots, but that’s better than destroying a nice edge.
Note: if you are using another knife for mincing, such as a gyuto, you don’t need to back-bevel your deba, and can also work more easily with a slightly shorter knife, perhaps 180mm.
The first step with the fish is mizu-arai, water-washing. There’s more involved than water, most done with your deba. We’re going to take a whole fish and make it into a head, a body, a pile of guts, and some trash. Usually the guts are trash too, but sometimes you want to save the liver.
I’m going to pretend you’ve gone to the local fishmonger and picked up a whole roundfish, guts and all. In reality, whole fish are probably mostly available pre-scaled and -gutted, which makes the work easier. For this recipe, you’re going to want the head, and you will probably need to clean the inside more thoroughly than the shop did.
I went to the Nishiki Market in Kyoto, a genuinely ancient (~700 yrs) market that provides pretty much everything you’d ever need to cook true Kyoto foods. Tai, the king of fish in Japan, is not in season now—it’s a spring thing—but smaller close relatives chi-tai and amadai are. After some looking, I got a chi-tai.
Step 1: Scale the Fish
There’s no secret: use a scaler, take your time, and remove the scales. A bream has tough armor around the face, so be sure to take that off. Be careful when working behind the dorsal fin, which has sharp spines. If you can arrange it, the best way is to put the fish in a clear garbage bag and work inside that. When you’re sure all the scales are off, rinse the fish in cold water, then use scrape backwards along the fish with your deba. This takes off any remaining bits and leaves the skin perfectly smooth. (Full disclosure: I allowed the fishmonger in Nishiki Market to scale my fish for 50 yen, because he’s more expert and doesn’t care about the mess.)
Step 2: Gut the Fish
Pull back the flap and cut where the gills are attached at the top and bottom. With a small fish, you can do this in one go, but usually you’ll have to flip it over and repeat on the other side. Insert your knife point under the jaw and cut until you reach the anal vent, using just the point so you don’t slash the guts. Pull out all the guts. Some fish, like sea bass, have a tough swim bladder that adheres tightly to the top of the cavity. If that’s in there, use the point of the knife to scrape backwards from the tail toward the head until it starts to come loose, then just pull it out.
Step 3: Wash the Interior
Remove all the blood. This your fishmonger probably didn’t do thoroughly. Rinse the cavity under cold running water. Look at the top: you’ll see a number of dark areas. Using the side of the point of the deba, scrape these vigorously and rinse again. When there are just a few tiny bits left, use a long toothpick or skewer to scrape them out. You want no signs of dark blood anywhere. Rinse well and pat semi-dry, just enough so you can handle the fish without it slipping.
Step 4: Behead the Fish
Lay the fish on its right side, the head pointing left. Cut under the collar fin, and up toward the collar. Repeat on the other side. Stand the fish on its belly, and hold the head with a towel. Rap the collar sharply with the heel of the knife, and the whole body will sag, revealing where the spine is. Rap the spine sharply, and the head will come off.
Your fish is now ready. Rinse everything well, scraping all work surfaces: fish scales have a nasty habit of sticking to anything.
Cutting Up the Head (頭を割る)
Start by laying the head on its side. The fin sticking up is hard, and so is the collar that goes up to the dorsal side, so grab the fin and cut just underneath, then up and over, and repeat on the other side. You should get both fins and the collar in one or two pieces, depending.
Stand the head on its back, as though the fish were swimming up out of the countertop. With the tip of the knife and your off-hand, open the mouth. Looking straight down, you’ll see four upper-front teeth. Insert the knife, point-down, so that the blade is between the central two teeth. Grip the lower jaw with your off hand, using a kitchen towel. This is important: you must keep the head stable, not only to get a clean cut but also for safety.
Once the head is well positioned, push sharply down on the knife until the point just touches the board. (Ideally, don’t quite touch, but keep the point about 1mm from the board.) This will shear through the upper jaw and into the face. Holding the handle of the knife, so you get leverage, press down, driving the heel to the board. Strive to keep the point in place by holding firmly with the left hand, thereby shearing through the upper portion of the head. As you do this, bear in mind that you’re aiming to split the head evenly in half, and in most cases I find it will do so easily.
Tip the head over by rotating the knife blade 90 degrees, then open the head like a book. At the lower jaw where it’s still holding together, chop squarely with the heel of the knife, producing two clean halves.
Place the halves on the board, eyes upward. Directly down from the eye, there is a spot at which the color and pattern of the skin changes. Insert the knife-point straight down at this spot, angling the blade perpendicular to the line of the fish’s face. Roll the knife blade downwards, as you did to split the head, cutting between eye and mouth. Flip the head over, insert the knife at the same point as before, but this time aim the blade about halfway between the upper and lower collars. Roll the knife again, shearing the eye section from the jaw. Using the same motion, shear the back third of the jaw from the front. If the fish is very large, also cut the eye section in half behind the eye. Repeat with the other head half.
If you have the whole fish frame, because you also butchered the rest of the fish with the sanmai-oroshi technique I’ll discuss in a future post, then lay the central skeleton on the board so that the meatless upper portions of the bones, as well as the dorsal skin and spines, extend just off the board. Using the board-edge as a guide, shear this whole strip off with sawing, downward motions of your knife. Repeat on the lower section as necessary—much of this has already been removed with the belly and guts. You should now have a rather meaty central skeleton, including the tail. Using the heel of the deba, chop the spine into 2cm sections.
You now have 6 head pieces or so, and perhaps a bunch of central spine pieces. The rest can be used to make stock.
Kindling-Braised Bream Leftovers, tai no ara-taki (鯛のあら焚き)
Drop the fish bits into just- boiling water, return as fast as possible to a rolling boil, then immediately remove and chill in ice water. This blanching technique, called “falling snow” because it whitens the fish, removes a lot of fishy taste. (Note: I didn’t bother, because the little chi-tai you see is too young and small to have much fishy taste.)
While the fish cools, prepare a stalk of gobō, or burdock, which you can find in lots of US markets these days (it is an invasive weed, so eat lots!). Scrub vigorously under running water with a coarse abrasive, like a ScotchBrite pad. Cut lengthwise into quarters, then into 2-inch lengths. Rinse well. If not using immediately, keep the gobo under water, or it will discolor.
If you have it, lay a sheet—about 3”x3”, give or take—of kombu seaweed on the bottom of a wide, deep sauté pan. Arrange the gobo in the pan, on top of the kombu if using. Layer the fish over the top, with the eyes upwards and near the center. Add 1 cup (400cc) water and 1 cup (400cc) drinkable sake (not fancy, but not salted “cooking sake”: even Gekkeikan will do). Put on a drop-lid or a smallish, flat pan lid that will hold the ingredients under the liquid. Add water if necessary until the edges of the lid are just barely submerged. (Note that all quantities in this recipe are very much to taste. I suggest starting with what I’ve listed, but then feel free to tinker based on what you like.)
Turn the heat to medium-high and wait until it comes to a rolling boil. Remove the lid and skim off the white scum—there may be quite a bit.
Add 4 Tb (65cc) sugar and 3 Tb (50cc) mirin; if you cannot get real mirin (much of what’s labeled “mirin” is sweetened “cooking wine” and fit only for pigs you don’t like), use 2.5 Tb (40cc) sake and an additional 1 Tb (15cc) sugar. Shake the pan to distribute the seasonings. Boil fairly rapidly, basting the top of the fish periodically, until reduced by half.
While this is cooking, grate a big chunk of ginger as finely as you can. Try to keep all the ginger and juice in one place. If you have a potato ricer or a giant garlic press, put the grated ginger in it; you could also try a double sheet of cheesecloth. Otherwise just be ready to press hard on the ginger.
When the liquid is half reduced, add ¼ cup (60cc) Japanese soy sauce and continue cooking and basting until the liquid turns into an oily-textured sauce. The sound of the cooking will change, and the bubbles will get larger.
Immediately squeeze in as much ginger juice as you can manage, swirl the pan to distribute, and baste rapidly. The sauce will soon get shiny and semi-thick. Remove from heat.
Put the fish chunks into a large bowl and shove to one side. Fill the other side with gobo, trying to get the sticks to look more or less like kindling-wood. Pour the sauce over the fish. A pile of julienned ginger will be great as a garnish.
You can serve this hot, but it’s better at room temperature. To eat, just fish out (ha ha) a meaty-looking chunk, then sort of nibble and slurp to get all the yummy fish and sauce off the bones. Make sure lots of napkins are available. The gobo is almost as good.
This dish will keep covered in the refrigerator for several days, but bring to room temperature before serving.
Eating fish heads aligns with something the Japanese call mottai-nai, which could be rendered, “waste not, want not.” It’s about using every bit of something rather than throwing good stuff away. It applies well beyond cooking, and is central to the ethos to which the Kyoto Protocols refer. (It’s not clear whether Kyoto was so big on mottainai before the Protocols or only after, but who cares?) If you can make delicious food out of something most would call trash, and you can do so principally by knowing how to use your knives, you should pat yourself on the back. (Put your knives down first—I won’t be responsible for involuntary back surgery.)
When I buy fish at Asian markets in Boston, they weigh it and then cut to order; you pay the same by weight, plus a fee for cutting. So this dish is in effect free: if I just buy the filets, I pay the same, and the heads are discarded.
If you can establish a working relationship with the guy at your fish counter, you can get the heads from mild, white fish for free or close to it. Salmon heads may be expensive, but salmon isn’t ideal for this dish anyway. (But I do plan to work out a good recipe for salmon heads no taki, since they’re so commonly available in the US.) Remember, when you’re trying to make friends with the fishmonger, getting heads for free is great, but be sure to buy something. That way he won’t mind giving you stuff. A word to the wise. Ideally, you want the biggest, meatiest heads you can find, because that produces much more fish to nibble on, and the dish works best that way.
Another thing I like is that the core flavor is, to my palate at least, the central flavor of Japanese home cooking. Kombu, gobo, fish, soy, sake, sugar, ginger, all simmered a long time: this is Japanese comfort food, like basic meat-sauce spaghetti or mac-and-cheese for many Americans. You can cook a range of foods this way, and that distinctive salt-sweet flavor will always remain.
I hope you’ll try this dish, even if it seems a bit out-of-the-way. I also hope you’ll learn to butcher fish with confidence, and in a future post, I promise to discuss cutting up fish for meat rather than scraps.
In the meantime, as they say in Kyoto, okini (thanks)!